These remarkable and bold vases have an altogether different character to the other porphyry vases in the Wrightsman collection, with a much more matte, unpolished surface, a darker, brownish colour, and a remarkable, almost spherical shape quite distinct from the great majority of vases carved from ancient columns in the 17th and 18th centuries. They are probably inspired by a group of ancient vases known as ‘Marriage of Cana’ vases for their legendary association with the miraculous episode in the New Testament when water was turned into wine. A ‘Marriage of Cana’ vase of remarkably similar spherical shape and dated to the Roman Empire is in Pisa Cathedral ( D.del Bufalo, Porphyry, Turin, 2012, p. 138, fig. V. 12, also illustrated here).
THE BORGHESE PROVENANCE
When last on the market in 1986, the catalogue entry for these vases indicated the provenance ‘Prince Borghese’. Although successive generations of this celebrated Roman family have continued to collect, it is a distinct possibility that these extraordinary vases were commissioned by Prince Don Marcantonio Borghese (1730-1800), one of the most important patrons in Rome of the neo-classical style during the pontificate of Pope Pius VI (1775-1799). Working with the architect Antonio Asprucci and inspired by the celebrated designs of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Prince Marcantonio commissioned a dazzling series of interiors in the 1770s in the new ‘antique’ style for both the Villa Borghese and the Palazzo Borghese in Rome.
An interesting parallel can be drawn between these vases with a pair of tables commissioned by Prince Marcantonio for the Galleria Terrena of the Palazzo Borghese in 1773. The tops for these tables reused ancient Roman marble floors which had been discovered on one of the Borghese country estates (sold Christie’s, London, 5July 2001, lot 50, £861,750). Similarly these vases perhaps consciously imitated known ancient forms to appeal to the 'antique' taste of Prince Marcantonio. Interestingly the distinctive colour of these vases indicates that they are made from a specific type of porphyry mined not in Egypt but in the Italian alps. This type of Italian porphyry was first used in the late Imperial Roman period, when stocks of Egyptian porphyry were more scarce, for instance on a basin dated to the 4th-6th centuries illustrated in del Bufalo op. cit., fig. L35.
Borghese worked closely with the celebrated Roman bronzier and silversmith Luigi Valadier, who supplied a pair of candelabra with porphyry bases (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) for a pair of tables with dodecagonal porphyry tops in the Galleriola dei Cesari, so-called for its series of porphyry busts of the Roman Emperors (see A. González-Palacios, Luigi Valadier, exh. cat.,New York, 2018, p. 422, fig. 9_26).. Valadier often worked with the stonecutter Lorenzo Cardelli, with whom he also collaborated on a series of chimneypieces, often incorporating porphyry (Palacios op. cit., p. 429, fig. 9_30 for a fireplace formerly at the Palazzo Borghese). The bold, large-scale muscularity of the gilt-bronzes on these vases however does seem to contrast with the precise, jewel-like quality of much of Luigi Valadier’s oeuvre in gilt- bronze, other than some of his earlier, more architectural work, such as the urn of St. Camillus in the Santa Maria Maddalena, Rome, which features similar large-scale acanthus leaves overlapping the edge of the rim as on these vases (see Palacios op. cit., p. 331, fig. 7_34).
MARQUIS DE ROCHAMBEAU
The catalogue entry in 1986 also mentioned the Marquis de Rochambeau as a subsequent provenance, which presumably refers to a descendant of the celebrated general Jean-Baptiste de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau (1725-1807), who fought in the American Revolutionary War alongside the Marquis de Lafayette and later served under Napoleon.